By Barry Goldstein
The National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) started 36 years ago as a pro-feminist, anti-racist, gay affirmative organization dedicated to supporting positive changes for men. It is open to men and women and strives to be considered as an ally by women. We believe this is especially important in the context of the widespread attempt by male supremacist groups to create the illusion that they speak for all men, or all fathers, instead of the narrow group of abusers they actually represent and support.
For thousands of years women have been treated as the property of their husbands and society tolerated and in many ways encouraged men’s control and mistreatment of their partners. Consider that the first law in the United States to address what we now refer to as domestic violence prohibited husbands from beating their wives—ON SUNDAY. The rule of thumb was a reform created to protect wives by forbidding husbands from beating their wives with an object thicker than their thumb. These laws were not forbidding men from beating their wives but only limiting when and how they assaulted them. Until 1976, every state made an exception to their rape laws to permit husbands to rape their wives, and this was not banned in every state until 1993.
The modern movement to end men’s violence against women began in the mid to late 1970s. This resulted in some reforms that made it easier for women to obtain protective orders, divorce, criminal prosecution, financial support, shelter and community support. These reforms made it easier for women to leave their abusers and in turn resulted in a significant reduction in domestic violence homicide. Interestingly, most of the lives saved were those of abusive men, as women were less likely to believe that the only way she could escape was, to kill her abuser. The Quincy Model (Quincy, MA created a successful approach to domestic violence that required strict enforcement of laws, restraining orders and probation conditions) included strong support to make it easier for women to leave resulting in a dramatic reduction in domestic violence homicide.
These reforms did not provide women with equal rights or protections, but even these reforms were too much for abusive men who continued to believe they were entitled to control their partners and make the major decisions in the relationship. They came together in male supremacist groups, complaining that women were being given too much power or even pretending women had more power than men. They developed an unspeakably cruel tactic in order to reclaim what they believe is their right to control their partners and prevent them from leaving. The tactic was to demand custody of the children despite their limited child care during the relationship, as a way to pressure their partners to return or punish them for leaving. They also developed many strategies to win these disputes including the development of unscientific theories (PAS) and support of a cottage industry of biased and unethical professionals that supported approaches and practices that benefited abusive fathers. The professionals found they increased their incomes by supporting abusive fathers who usually controlled the family finances.
The goals of these abuser rights groups are to eliminate child support, undermine laws against domestic violence and in some cases to permit sex between adults and children. These objectives would not go over too well with judges or legislators so they chose to conceal their purpose in an attempt to manipulate the media, courts and legislators. They started this manipulation by calling themselves “fathers’ rights” groups even though men and fathers have a long and continued history of enjoying substantially more rights than women and mothers. Most fathers love their children and would not support approaches so clearly harmful to children, but when good men fail to challenge the extremists involved in the male supremacist movement they can be successful in creating the illusion that they speak for most men and fathers. They have also done an effective job in covering up the extreme nature of their demands with benign sounding requests like “friendly parent,” shared parenting, treating parents equally (they leave off regardless of past parenting) and arguments that children need both parents in their lives (and then we see abusive fathers remove mothers from the children’s lives as soon as the courts give them control).
Long before I joined NOMAS, they were speaking up on behalf of protective mothers. I am now co-chair of the child custody task force with Jack Straton, but Jack was the chair for many years before my involvement. Jack wrote some wonderful articles supporting protective mothers and challenging the value of shared parenting. He also wrote an amicus brief for a case supporting a protective mom. Accordingly when I joined NOMAS there was no need to persuade the council of the need to support protective mothers.
At my first NOMAS Conference I agreed to present a workshop with Ben Atherton-Zeman about the role of men in supporting protective mothers. Protective mothers are the experts on this subject so it was important that we ask them what they would want men to do rather than decide for ourselves. We sent out a request for suggestions to a list serve supporting protective mothers and received many wonderful suggestions that became the basis for our presentation and an article on the NOMAS web site.
Throughout my time with NOMAS they have enthusiastically supported everything I have asked for on behalf of protective mothers. We passed a resolution supporting protective moms and asked men’s groups around the world to join. Several responded with their support. We have co-sponsored the Battered Mothers Custody Conference the last three years and will be co-sponsoring the NCADV conference for the second time this July in Denver. We have also signed on to letters and amicus briefs on behalf of protective mothers. In March of 2011 the office on Violence Against Women in the Justice Department invited a group of a dozen of the leading experts in the country to speak about the crisis in the custody court system. I was honored to be among the experts asked to present and specifically mentioned my involvement with NOMAS.
We believe this is particularly important because of the success abuser rights groups have had in manipulating courts, legislatures and the media to believe they speak for all or most men and fathers. In reality they represent the most extreme abusers and speak only for themselves. We want the government and others to know that most good men and fathers want to see children protected from abusers and certainly would not support the loonies who are part of the male supremacist movement. We particularly want the courts to understand that the professionals who are part of the cottage industry supporting abusive fathers do so because it is the best way for them to make large incomes and should never be considered neutral professionals or appointed as GALs, evaluators and any other position the court would rely on.
The NOMAS Approach and Perspective
NOMAS Council meetings are particularly interesting because they are based upon our perspective and we take our goal of acting in a non-oppressive manner very seriously. Towards the end of each meeting we have a process in which any member who is part of a marginalized group can point out any offensive statements or behavior from someone in a privileged group. This means that a person of color can discuss racist behavior, a woman could raise sexist behavior and someone from the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT) community could object to heterosexist behavior.
This is not done in an accusatory or negative way, but rather in an informative and supportive manner. It is important to understand that we would define racism, sexism and other oppressions differently than they are understood by the general public. People usually become defensive when accused of racism or sexism because racism is viewed as the kind of extreme behavior we would associate with the Ku Klux Klan and sexism is often understood as extreme behavior such as sexual assault or offensive slurs. We believe oppression is far more subtle and good people can engage in offensive behavior without realizing they are doing so. Accordingly when someone from a marginalized group points out an offensive statement or behavior it is considered a gift because we would otherwise have been oblivious to our offense.
We are privileged to have two remarkable women with lengthy service to the battered women’s movement on our Council. Rose Garrity is the Executive Director of the New Hope Center and a former member of the NCADV Board of Directors. Phyllis B. Frank is the director and founder of the VCS Domestic Violence Program for Men which is the oldest batterer program in New York State and third oldest in the country. Phyllis and Rose have been instrumental in developing the New York Model for Batterer Programs. Phyllis has been a mentor for me these past twelve years and I have been privileged to attend weekly training led by Phyllis as part of my work as an instructor and later supervisor in the program. Phyllis and Rose help us to understand sexism and domestic violence in addition to their many other contributions.
We also have a process in which we remember past council members and others who have contributed to the work of NOMAS who have passed away. As a fairly new member to the council I have learned about some remarkable men and women. We speak of their contributions and in doing so are reminded of the context in which we continue their work.
There is also a process in which we express criticisms and appreciations regarding anything that may have happened in the meetings or conference. This is always done in a supportive way and reinforces our determination to act in a respectful manner. The appreciations help make sure we take the time to tell each other of the good things we admire in the other council members. I believe this helps us work in a more collegial and cooperative manner.
I have the opportunity to speak about current child custody issues when I make my report for the child custody task force. We also address these topics in discussing our conferences and other presentations. The council has always encouraged me to let protective mothers and organizations supporting them know that we are available to provide whatever assistance and support we can. We particularly want the public, courts and legislatures to know that good men and fathers support protective mothers.
The Importance of Oppression Theory
The men in the batterer program I teach initially do not understand why we are discussing racism or heterosexism in a class about domestic violence. The reason is that all of the oppressions are interconnected. We cannot end one oppression without ending all of them. Imagine a black man who hates racism because of the harm it causes him and wants to do whatever he can to end it, and then he mistreats his partner because of his sexism and in doing so helps maintain racism. Similarly a white woman who hates sexism because it undermines her life and safety, and wishes to do whatever she can to end sexism, and then she unconsciously engages in racism and in doing so she is helping to perpetuate sexism.
This tendency to undermine our own best interests by supporting some of the oppressions is not accident but part of the plan to make it work. Many of our actions supporting oppressions are unconscious. We have seen, for instance, local television newscasts provide disproportional coverage of crime stories and particularly ones in which black men are the alleged perpetrators. This continues even when the crime rate is down and results in whites fearing black men which in turn make it harder for them to obtain employment and other disadvantages.
Oppression theory refers to an arrangement in society in which one group is given unearned privileges over the other group, and is treated as being more valuable. Racism refers to the privileges of white people over people of color and sexism the advantages men are given over women. Other common examples of oppression are classism (rich over poor), heterosexism (heterosexuals over the GLBT community), ableism (able bodied people over the disabled), anti-semitism (Christians over Jews, but also applies to other religions) and there are others.
The disadvantage refers to the structure of society rather than other aspects of a disadvantage. Obviously the resources rich people have give them a large advantage, but the oppression of classism increases this advantage. This is why society focuses on explanations that blame the poor for their condition (i.e. laziness, bad character, stupidity) instead of societal obstructions such as poor education, lack of opportunity, health issues including lack of treatment, etc).. Obviously there are examples in which both explanations apply, but the tendency to blame the victim adds to the obstacles poor people face. Disabled people are disadvantaged by their physical condition but again this can be exacerbated by societal behavior. If a group of friends wish to go to a restaurant but cannot do so because the restaurant is not accessible, they will sometimes blame the fact that one of them is disabled instead of the restaurant for not providing the needed accessibility.
It is important to understand I am speaking of unearned privilege. A surgeon has the privilege of operating in a hospital that most other people do not have, but this is an earned privilege. The doctor had to obtain substantial education and training in order to qualify as a surgeon (of course the doctor may have had privileges that made it easier to access and afford the education and training). The men in the batterer program I instruct will sometimes complain of oppression when I enforce a rule or direct the discussion to consider our perspective. This is an earned privilege however; as I am required to receive weekly training in order to earn this privilege. When white people receive privileges based on racism or men based on sexism, this is an unearned privilege.
Sexism is fundamental to a discussion of domestic violence because sexism causes men to use abusive tactics against their partners. Contrary to popular misconceptions, men do not abuse their partners because of mental illness, substance abuse, anger management issues or the behavior of their partner. Sexism causes men to believe they are entitled to control their partner and make the major decisions in the relationship. They use domestic violence tactics to coerce their partners to accept their control and decisions. Unqualified mental health professionals without an understanding of domestic violence dynamics often make false and dangerous assumptions that the abuser will no longer pose a threat once the parties have separated. This contributes to the widespread failure to take domestic violence seriously.
The King Center in Atlanta is run by the family of Dr. Martin Luther King and highlights his life and work in the civil rights movement. They have an exhibit that tells the stories of people today continuing his work and significantly it shows activists working against many different oppressions. I particularly remember the story of a Russian woman who started the domestic violence movement in her country. Clearly the King Center understands the need to end all oppressions in order to end racism.
Oppression Causes Tremendous Loss of Opportunity
I sometimes use a song by Terry Cashman, “Now They’re Writing Songs” to promote a discussion in the batterer classes I teach. The men may wonder why I would be playing a song about baseball in a domestic violence class, but it makes the class more interesting and encourages a rich discussion. The song concerns the integration of baseball and particularly the role of Jackie Robinson. The song raises some wonderful issues for discussion such as the ability of Jackie Robinson to control his reaction in the face of unspeakable cruelty and disrespect that was far beyond what abusive men claim makes them lose control and abuse their partner. The integration of baseball was achieved not by some legislation, but by private behavior just as abusers continue to engage in controlling and criminal behavior despite a change in laws. Men in the program sometimes say that domestic violence is based on a belief system that will never change and yet there was a time when most white people thought major league baseball would never permit black ballplayers.
For purposes of this article, I want to focus on how the segregation of the major leagues and racism in general undermined the ability of people to reach their potential. This in turn made all of society poorer, financially and otherwise. In the song, Cashman points out that there might have been more Willie Mays’. By segregating baseball for so many years, the owners prevented most of the public from seeing the artistry and talents of so many other black baseball players. Significantly, the loss to society went far beyond missed pleasures.
Many black baseball players became heroes and role models for black children and this could have been impacting our society generations earlier. We cannot know how this might have changed some of their lives and what contributions they could have made to society. Some of these players would also have become heroes to white children which might have led to some of the reforms, integration and opportunities sooner than they occurred. Obviously we still have a long way to go to overcome the harm racism has caused, but we might have been further along the path to these improvements.
In the times we are speaking about, major league baseball players did not make much money because the owners controlled the players and free agency did not yet exist. Nevertheless, many of the players would have earned more money than they could otherwise earn. This would have helped their children receive a better education and other opportunities so they might have a better chance to reach their potential. The players might have been able to use their income from baseball to start small businesses that could have improved the economy in their communities. Again we can only imagine the financial and other benefits this would have provided.
The loss of potential from domestic violence is far more widespread than just affecting the direct victims. Obviously women murdered by their abusive partners never have an opportunity to reach their potential. Similarly, even survivors often fail to accomplish all they would have. This loss can be caused by interference in her career or education, denial of an opportunity to pursue her career, difficulty concentrating as a result of his abuse, direct interference with her employment or many other ways. We also know that children who witness domestic violence are far less likely to reach their potential. Abusers can’t reach their potential if they are in jail for their crimes, but even if they are never punished, the time wasted stalking and harassing their victim undermines their ability to be all they might have been. Since children who witness domestic violence are more likely to commit crimes against third parties, many of these victims will also be denied the opportunity to pursue their goals and accomplishments.
At the end of the song Cashman says he wishes there was something he could do to change what happened. This describes a sadness to the song because there is nothing anyone can do to eliminate the harm caused by the long time segregation in baseball. I often write about the crisis in the custody court system and tremendous harm it causes by continued use of outdated and discredited practices that harm women and children. This is different than the song because there is something we can do to change the harm caused by the use of flawed practices. It would be unspeakably sad if another singer many years from now sings about the harm caused by the broken custody court system and again says I wish there was something I could do to change it.
Oppression Creates Substantial Financial Losses to Society
As part of the research I did for my chapter about the approach to domestic violence in Quincy Massachusetts and Poughkeepsie, New York for the second volume of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY, I learned about the tremendous financial cost of tolerating domestic violence crimes. Just the additional health care costs amount to $750 billion. This is a higher estimate than many other studies because it looked at more than the immediate treatment of a wound inflicted by an abuser and considered the long term medical costs. Many diseases, including heart disease and cancer are caused or exacerbated by stress. There are few things more stressful than living with an abuser. Victims try to survive by self-medicating themselves and this later requires treatment for various addictions. Domestic violence also creates mental health problems such as depression and PTSD. Furthermore, children who witness domestic violence also have increased need for medical services.
Bill Delahunt, the district attorney who helped create the successful Quincy Model noticed that most of the men in the maximum security prison in his district had a history of witnessing domestic violence and/or being directly abused physically or sexually as a child. In other words domestic violence crimes are the cause of many other crimes committed against non-family members. Accordingly the financial cost to society of tolerating domestic violence crimes includes those crimes and many others committed by children who witnessed domestic violence crimes. When everything is considered, society spends over one trillion dollars every year as a result of criminal activity. Obviously if domestic violence crimes were eliminated it would not end all or even most crimes, but there would be a significant reduction. Conservatively it is reasonable to calculate that at least $200 billion is the result of domestic violence crimes.
The additional losses to business and the economy are even harder to calculate because we cannot know what an individual could have accomplished if she had not been undermined by society’s tolerance of domestic violence crime. We do know that billions are lost each year from absenteeism caused by domestic violence. More billions are lost in reduced productivity of the abuser and his victim. The larger amounts can only be estimated. What might victims, abusers, children witnessing domestic violence and third party victims have accomplished if they had not been undermined by domestic violence? Most would go to work, contribute to the economy and never be known except to family and friends. Some might have started businesses that employed many others. Others might have been teachers or worked in other professions that inspired still other people to make contributions to society. A few may have created new industries, important inventions, medical discoveries or become an important political leader. This loss of opportunity probably costs society at least hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
In my chapter I deliberately used a conservative figure and concluded the United States could save $500 billion every year by using the best practices we already know work to reduce domestic violence crimes. If we could end sexism, this would eliminate domestic violence and therefore society would gain over a trillion dollars every year. In other words just this one part of the cost of sexism costs each person in our society about $3,000 every year. That seems like a ridiculous amount of money to pay so that a group of abusive men can continue to abuse and control their partners.
Racism, sexism and the system of oppression are not natural developments that were inevitable, but rather created by a small group of extremely wealthy, white, Christian, heterosexual and able-bodied men. They largely control the media and other places where the public receives information and messages. This means that those advantaged by each oppression and those harmed by it have heard the same misinformation throughout their lives. Accordingly, many members of marginalized groups have internalized the messages that work against them and thus are affected by internalized racism, sexism, etc.
This was reflected in a study by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark that showed black children preferred white dolls over black dolls. This was an important part of the evidence in the groundbreaking Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education that resulted in a court order to desegregate our nation’s schools. Similarly when we see women minimize their partner’s abuse or suggest that wife rape might be justified, because somehow husbands are entitled to sex with their wives even if she does not want to engage in a particular act, these are examples of internalized sexism. Members of the advantaged group often seek to use statements by members of the marginalized group based on internalized oppression as proof they are accepting of this mistreatment.
At least since some of the success from the civil rights movement, we have seen those who opposed any progress complain about “reverse discrimination.” Similarly we sometimes hear male supremacists complain that they are the victims of sexism and that women are being given all the advantages. The Supreme Court has even rendered misguided decisions supporting this kind of backlash. These arguments are based on a fundamental misperception about oppression and how it works.
Men who abuse women and other people who try to benefit from the various oppressions often seek to justify and keep their unearned privileges by discussing issues out of context. In some cases they may not even realize they are doing so. For instance when someone complains about an affirmative action program they limit their discussion to how that one program makes it harder for them but fail to consider all the other benefits they receive because they are part of an unfairly advantaged group. We have seen studies where applicants for jobs submit similar resumes but some with names that sound like they are white and others that sound like they are black. Those with white sounding names were far more likely to obtain interviews and employment. A program that makes it easier for blacks to be hired reduces that unearned advantage white people have, but the net result continues to be a tremendous advantage for white people. It is the reduction of that advantage that is misunderstood as if it were reverse discrimination. Similarly, we live in a sexist society in which women are expected and often forced to provide most of the child care. The research is clear that children benefit from living with their primary attachment figure. They are more likely to suffer depression, low-self-esteem and to commit suicide when older if separated from their primary attachment figure. Nevertheless fathers claim it would give mothers an unfair advantage if they were favored for custody because the mother did most of the child care and their children need them more. Of course male supremacists don’t phrase the issue quite that accurately.
Promoting the well-being of men is among the goals NOMAS seeks to accomplish. We believe this can best be done with a pro-feminist, anti-oppression approach. The male supremacist groups routinely use feminism as a pejorative and have made severe and unreasoned personal attacks against members of the NOMAS’ Council in response to our support of protective mothers. They view us as traitors for supporting women and don’t understand that ending domestic violence and sexism would also benefit men.
Imagine what would happen if we approach men and made the following offer. If you will stop all coercive and controlling tactics against your intimate partner(s) and treat her respectfully you will receive $200,000. This is based on my research on the Quincy Model which shows we all pay $3,000 per year in order to continue tolerating men’s abuse of women. If someone lives for seventy years they would gain $210,000. In reality the benefit would be more because there are additional benefits such as improvements in the education system as children could learn better when not impacted by their fathers’ abuse. I believe most men would take this deal and I like making the offer because few men understand the harm their domestic violence is causing to men.
The financial impact of domestic violence is by far not the most important harm it creates. Men’s abuse of their intimate partners takes lives and routinely destroys the quality of so many other lives. Men would find that their relationships are so much more satisfying and enjoyable when based on equality and mutual respect. Sexual relations are so much more pleasurable when it is based on giving each other pleasure rather than pressuring a partner to do what you want.
One of the important lessons from the Quincy Model and a centerpiece of their approach was the importance of helping women leave their abusers. The custody courts by accepting misinformation that seeks to label contested custody as “high conflict” when they are mostly domestic violence cases, have failed to understand the motivation of fathers seeking custody despite little prior involvement with parenting their children. The purpose of abusive fathers seeking custody is to prevent or punish women for leaving him. In other words they are seeking to create a result that undermines approaches that have been shown to save lives and we now know would also save money. It is in this context that it is so important for NOMAS to take the strongest possible stand in support of protective mothers.
The financial benefits of ending domestic violence, while not the most important issue, is exciting because it will create a strong incentive for politicians, business and the public to make ending domestic violence a priority. NOMAS looks forward to working with and supporting protective mothers to reform the broken system. I hope protective mothers will contact us when you need to let the powers that be know that good men are on the side of protective mothers.
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence expert, speaker, writer and consultant. He is the co-editor with Mo Therese Hannah of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY. Barry can be reached by email from their web site www.Domesticviolenceabuseandchildcustody.com